Comment and analysis by Leicester Green Party, and its fellow-travellers
A few years ago, when I was just starting to spend my spare time campaigning on climate change, I asked a friend to come to an event with me and she replied, ‘Oh I don’t get involved in environmental campaigns – I care more about people.’ It was just a throwaway comment (and it probably really meant that she didn’t want to spend her Saturday at a demonstration in the cold), but it stayed with me. To start with, I was astonished that she hadn’t realised that damaging our environment is like attacking the foundations of your own house. And then I started to think that the environmental movement had gone rather wrong if it hadn’t managed to explain that to her. As far as I was concerned, human rights and climate change have always been bound up together.
If our carbon emissions continue to rise, we will be on track for runaway climate change. The increasing temperatures will disrupt Earth’s systems and trigger events that will create more warming, like the melting of the permafrost releasing methane. Different models seem to give slightly different scenarios of what that will mean for the 7 billion people living on the planet but all of them are unthinkable. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’ and climate change puts that at risk for all of us. However, we don’t need to hypothesize about the future to find people whose rights are affected by climate change. The 1 degree rise in temperature that we are experiencing so far has already disrupted weather patterns that people depend on. Weak rains have led to poor harvests and rising prices in West Africa this year and the UN says that 50 million people are now at risk of needing food aid. Five years of drought in Columbia have left 3.5 million already dependent on food aid. In Australia, there have been three years of drought and livestock are dying. Heat waves and drought in India have affected 330 million people. And yes, droughts have always been a fact of life in many of these places but the changing climate is making them longer and more severe. The occasional bad harvest can perhaps be weathered but consecutive years of bad harvests lead to famine and force people to leave their homes.
The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ That is still an aspiration rather than a reality. The most striking thing about the litany of climate disasters is the mind-boggling unfairness of the people who have done the least to cause the problem being the first and the worst affected. If there’s a drought in Australia, your livestock die but you can buy food produced somewhere else and get through it for another year. If there’s a drought in West Africa, your livestock die and you’ve got nothing to eat. There is a reason that environmental movements talk more and more about ‘climate justice’ – people who have never benefitted from the cheap energy provided by fossil fuels should not be paying the price for the people who have.
Before fossil fuels are even burnt, their extraction creates and fosters inequalities. In ‘This Changes Everything’, Naomi Klein describes the ‘sacrifice zones’:
‘Running an economy on energy sources that release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and
refining has always required sacrifice zones – whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.’ (p.310)
From the First Nations communities in Canada whose ancestral home has been devastated by tar sands, to the people in Nigeria who live next to Shell’s gas flaring and have no electricity themselves, to the deprived communities in northern England fighting fracking – it is no accident that fossil fuel companies target their activities in places where people are poor and have little power. I very much doubt that the Chief Executive of Shell, and all of the other people who benefit most from fossil fuels, would want their children to breathe air polluted by gas flaring or live next to a poison-leaking fracking rig. If we were all equal, we wouldn’t be using any fossil fuels at all.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written with the understanding that ensuring human rights can prevent wars:
‘…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human
family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’
It is widely recognised that climate change, as it threatens people’s resources (and therefore right to life and security), will create conflict. Ironically, the US military, that has spent so much time fighting to protect their access to cheap oil, is now planning for how to cope with the wars caused by drought and displacement – for wars caused by burning that oil. In fact, they are already happening. Analysis of the situation in Syria has concluded that four years of drought caused a massive internal displacement of people to the cities, which aggravated tensions and fuelled the civil war. Shamefully, when the refugees from this conflict arrive in the countries most responsible for producing the emissions that led to the drought, they are treated as intruders and a threat to national security. Desperate people, forced to leave their homes by a problem that they did not create, are not the threat to human security that we should be worried about.
Climate change is an environmental problem, yes, but we live in our environment. Our health and wellbeing is inseparable from the health of our planet and the only way that we have managed to ignore that until now is by pretending that some people matter more than others. We need to stop pretending and we need to start talking about human rights when we talk about climate change.
Leicester Friends of the Earth are organising an event on 8th December on climate change and human rights as part of the Leicester Human Rights Arts and Film Festival: